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Afghans vote for democracy

Afghans voted on Thursday to elect a president for the second time in history as fears emerged of weak turnout despite only sporadic violence from Taliban militants determined to sabotage the ballot.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2009 00:23 IST

Afghans voted on Thursday to elect a president for the second time in history as fears emerged of weak turnout despite only sporadic violence from Taliban militants determined to sabotage the ballot.

Insurgents stormed a small northern Afghan town, sparking clashes that prevented voting, and security fears depressed turnout in the Taliban's southern strongholds.

But a deadly shootout in Kabul appeared to have little impact, as Western-backed President Hamid Karzai urged Afghans to exercise their democratic rights.

Minor attacks were reported elsewhere, including in Kandahar in the south, which was the capital of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, but cautiously optimistic Afghan and UN officials said violence could have been far worse.

“The kind of spectacular attacks that we were warned about have not happened. The day is still not over but I must say I am pleased to see that so far the elections have been going on quite well,” said UN envoy Kai Eide.

“The turnout is very good,” said deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barakzai.
But independent observers said voter participation appeared low. One Western diplomat told AFP: "Turnout (in Kandahar) is definitely very, very low, significantly lower than in the north.

"I have driven around the city (Kabul) and the situation is varying from time to time, but I have seen no queues and it is definitely very quiet, much quieter than in 2004," he added, referring to the last presidential election.

Karzai hopes to win an outright majority to avoid a run-off, but his nervous government ordered a blackout on reporting violence during polling day, threatening journalists with heavy penalties.

Voting centres were due to close at 4:00 pm (1130 GMT), guarded by a huge deployment of 300,000 Afghan and foreign forces. But the election commission said people who were in queues should be allowed to cast ballots beyond 4:00 pm.